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Train Travel In China During Spring Festival

An older peasant woman tried to elbow past me and usurp my position in the line leading into the train carriage. I stopped her short with a stiff arm and some sharp words. Around a hundred anxious passengers were in line behind us and I wasn’t going to let them trample me. But as soon [...]

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An older peasant woman tried to elbow past me and usurp my position in the line leading into the train carriage. I stopped her short with a stiff arm and some sharp words. Around a hundred anxious passengers were in line behind us and I wasn’t going to let them trample me. But as soon as I turned my back she surged forward again, planting an elbow into my wife, who had our three year old daughter in her arms, and tried to plow her way onto the train. My wife stood her ground and both parties tried to knock each other into the dark, cavernous crack between train and platform. Getting on a Chinese train is a sink or swim scenario in the best of times, but during the height of the Lunar New Year travel season it’s all out war.

People were embarking and disembarking from this train in unison, pushing from in front of me and behind. Elbows, faces, heads, hands, bags, and luggage were churning everywhere but going nowhere — like too many towels stuffed into a washing machine. The conductor, whose job it is to sort out these melees just idly chanted “Deng, deng, deng.” Impotent words.

I elbowed my way into the train and fought for a position in the area between the two carriages. I kicked and held shut the door to the adjacent car to my left, preventing a tide of passengers from pushing through it and buying myself the space to help my wife and daughter. They were pinned in the doorway of the train by an old man in ragged, Mao-era workman clothes as other passengers were pushing from behind. Together, they clogged up the works, as they all couldn’t fit through the door at the same time. But rather than doubling back and waiting the few nanoseconds for my wife to board, the old guy continued trying to squeeze through. I grabbed the geezer by the front of his blue jacket, yelled at him in Mandarin to fucking wait, and gave him a firm push out of the train’s door while at the same time pulling my wife and kid through it. The cavity was unstuck and a surge of passengers piled through. I grabbed my family, released my hold on the door of the adjacent carriage, and we were pushed by a sea of humanity sprouting from two springs through the train.

“These people are fucking animals!” my wife roared as she was being trampled by the herd. Harsh words, but I couldn’t really disagree: 3,000 years of civilization have seemingly done little to temper the mobs of passengers boarding a packed train during the Chinese New Year travel season.

chunyun-2_DCEIt is estimated that the people of this country will make 2 to 3.5 billion trips during this 40 day period. Just about everybody in China wants to return to their native towns and villages for the holiday, and as families here become more and more geographically separated by the pursuits of work, education, and urban migration the number of travelers during Spring Festival rises higher and higher each year. “If we couldn’t be with our families for the New Year life would be unbearable” is the mantra of this holiday, and the cities of China empty as the people go back to their ancestral homes. This means that the public transportation networks are packed beyond their proper carrying capacity.

But I have no idea why the passengers on this train were pushing and trying to board as fast as they could, as most of them actually had seats that nobody could rightfully occupy but them. This is one of the great mysteries of travel in China: why do people whose fate is sealed by the numbers on their tickets brawl with each other for the seats that they are guaranteed? Nobody stood to gain or lose nothing by getting to their seats a few moments earlier or later, and, for all it was worth, the entire melee seemed like some kind of Communist era throwback game. But, then again, the older, poorer elements of this culture perhaps had the fear of scarcity permanently burned into their psyches — taking what you can get when you can get it without regard for who you run down was perhaps once good sense here. Not long ago this country experienced one of the most extensive famines in modern history, and the people who lived through it were probably the ones who knew how to get to their seats on the train first.

But I had to watch on with fascination as both the old man and the old woman who just moments before were trying to plow my family and I over calmly looked at their tickets and took the seats — exactly the same as they would if they did not bother fighting in the first place. But the Chinese crowd mentality and reason are two completely different phenomenon.

The case with my family was different, as we were riding wu zuo — seat-less. Our tickets, literally, had “no seat” printed on them. During the Chinese Lunar New Year, all the seats in the trains are usually fully booked, but a certain number of additional passengers are allotted standing room only tickets. There was no other option but to either take them or go back to our apartment. We were enduring the struggle of boarding the train in order to get dibs on a good place to stand: a battle with slim benefits.

But this venture was pushing my wife to her limits. She was ready to hop of the train and call it quits. Being knocked around and pushed from place to place was not her idea of a fun vacation. Where I can replace feelings of discomfort with those of fascination and curiosity, my wife is far more oriented towards having a good time. I had my daughter in my arms and I temporarily took someone else’s seat as I tried to wait for the aisle to clear a little. When the rise of hectic insanity was at its crescendo, something remarkable happened:

The guy whose seat I was sitting in inevitably arrived. He was probably around 20 years old, well dressed, light skinned, and wealthy enough to be trendy — he even had a lip piercing. He looked at his ticket in the obvious and awkward sort of way that Chinese people do to non-verbally communicate to someone that they are sitting in their seat. I got up to move. But when I mentioned that we didn’t have seats, he quickly redoubled on his position and offered us his. He would stand in out stead. This was no small gesture, as the train was going to Hangzhou, over two hours away.

This was a classic China scenario: just when you think the people here are a bunch of uncivilized proto-humans, someone breaks the pattern and does something incredibly gracious, caring, and conscientious. In a climate of man struggling against man for seats in a train, this guy offered up his to some foreigner with a kid. China is a country of incredibly stark cultural contrasts, it’s a shame that far too many travelers close up here at experiencing the first side and become callous to the other.

I left my kid in the seat and dove into the throng to find my beleaguered and spirit-stomped wife, who got separated from us in the melee. “Hey, one of the animals just gave you his seat.”

Filed under: China, Train Travel

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3611 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York

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  • Felix Gervais February 19, 2013, 10:29 am

    The behavior of some of those retards when entering or exiting trains warrants the use of the Thai clinch and repeated knees, Anderson Silva on Rich Franklin style. You are a brave soul for going there with the little one… I would never subject anyone else to it, except manly friends who like to push and be pushed.

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    • Vagabond Journey February 19, 2013, 7:09 pm

      @Felix Gervais For real man, some MMA definitely comes in handy!

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  • bendavisokc March 26, 2013, 3:01 pm

    Love this article.  I was in Guangzhou for Spring Festival in 2010 and saw an 80-year old woman leap over a row of chairs to get on a bus.  Somehow, I ended up on the bus at the correct time in the correct seat.  I am considering moving to ZhongShan from the US this year.  I am doing my research and found your site today, it is great!

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    • Vagabond Journey March 26, 2013, 8:52 pm

      bendavisokc Yes, it is crazy getting on the trains sometimes — especially during the holidays. It’s part of the fun of traveling here 🙂

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  • xingfenzhen April 21, 2013, 4:13 am

    “This is one of the great mysteries of travel in China: why do people
    whose fate is sealed by the numbers on their tickets brawl with each
    other for the seats that they are guaranteed?”

    Overhead rack space is often the reason, having to stand is one thing, having to stand with luggage is another. btw, think out this classic movie about spring time travel, very funny. http://video.baidu.com/kan/movie/?id=14676&url=http://www.iqiyi.com/dianying/20100628/n22290.html

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